Trust issues: How much faith do Canadians have in government?

ANALYSIS: For a government to succeed with a new agenda, it needs to have the electorate’s trust. Here’s what the numbers say about what Canadians are thinking
By Brad Graham - Published on Sep 09, 2021
At the beginning of the federal election, trust of Canadians in government grew to 65 per cent. (Pgiam/istockphoto.com)

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The Governance Monitor, an initiative from the Institute on Governance and Advanced Symbolics, tracks the impact of the election campaign on Canadians’ trust in government, going beyond the horse race to produce informed insights and analysis.

This is the first in a series of articles jointly produced by the Institute on Governance and Advanced Symbolics for TVO.org and iPolitics. Throughout the federal-election campaign, these articles will analyze the extent to which Canadians trust in government — and what that trust could mean for the future of our country.

The current federal election will determine who will lead Canada through the many challenges before us. For a government to succeed with a new agenda, it needs to have Canadians’ trust. As the campaign unfolds with the leaders’ debates, Canadians’ changing views of trust will determine the success of a new mandate.

Data trends: 

  • At the beginning of the federal election, trust of Canadians in government grew to 65 per cent in August, a full 10 percentage points higher than this spring’s 55 per cent
  • During the federal election of October 2019, trust peaked at 68 per cent, compared to chart titled Canadians' trust in government, 2019-21the longer-term average of 63 per cent since 2019.
  • The daily tracker shows that, in the first week of September, trust fell below the rate seen at the start of the campaign.
  • The onset of COVID-19 in February 2020 saw a lower-than-average level of trust, at 58 per cent; that increased to 64 per cent in March 2020. 
  • On the ideological spectrum, Canadians on the far left, left, and centre have higher levels of trust in government. Canadians on the right have average levels of trust, while the far right has the lowest level of trust.
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Trust in government ranks highest in Atlantic Canada and Nunavut, which are followed by Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Northwest Territories. 

Trust declines further in British Columbia and Yukon and is most negative in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

orange map of Canada titled "regional sentiments, 2019-21"

What it means

Canadians’ trust in the ability of governments to deliver on their mandates typically rises during an election campaign. Canadians’ trust going into this election was lower by four points than it was during the October 2019 election.

COVID-19 has greatly affected trust levels. After an initial increase in trust at the outset of the pandemic — as governments worked together and science-based information was made available to Canadians — each of the first three waves saw trust fall as governments tightened public-health measures. The effect of the fourth wave, which continues amid the current election campaign, is unclear at this point.

As the leaders’ debates unfold this week, we can expect to see volatility before longer-term trends of trust in government can be established. Trust levels coming out of the election will reflect Canadians’ faith in a new government’s ability to deal with important issues.

Why it matters

Research tells us that:

  • Declining trust means that citizens are less likely to support government direction, making widespread consensus difficult.
  • Trust is required for citizens to accept government information over misinformation.
  • Lack of institutional and social trust can lead to populism, which in turn leads to further criticism of government and its institutions.
  • Declining trust has led to the far right questioning the very legitimacy of elections and public institutions. 
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